Offseason Q&A: Stanford

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Notre Dame’s season finale will once again have major implications—if all goes according to plans. The Irish will close the season in Northern California, visiting Stanford in a rivalry that’s growing quickly to become one of the more important ones on the Irish schedule.

No longer are the Cardinal the shabby outfit best remembered for a spunky marching band or a zany mascot. David Shaw has built one of college football’s most consistent programs, continuing Jim Harbaugh’s reclamation project as he’s put together a rough-and-tumble bully in a conference not exactly know for its physicality. Just as impressive, the Cardinal have also revved up their recruiting machine, another elite academic institution that’s winning its share of battles for blue-chip talent.

To get us up to speed on things at The Farm, Do-Hyoung Park joins me. A fellow St. Paul native, Do is a senior staff writer and former sports editor of The Stanford Daily where he’s covered the Cardinal football, baseball and tennis squads, while also serving as part of the football broadcast team on KZSU, Stanford’s student radio station. He’s majoring in chemical engineering.

(He also wrote this, which I’d be happy to co-sign.)

From the great state of Minnesota, Do provided some great, in-depth answers to the best questions I could think up. Hope you enjoy.

 

After an incredible run, Stanford finally had an average season, with the Cardinal finishing 8-5 on the year. Their losses were all respectable, but a tough schedule and just an average offense doomed David Shaw’s team. What was the attitude like on The Farm this spring? And from a psyche perspective, how did the players and coaching staff react to their most disappointing season since early in the Harbaugh era?

I definitely can’t speak for the players and coaches, but I can tell you one thing: It’s been clear to me for the last couple of years that despite all of the program’s recent success, nobody has started to take winning for granted — success is earned, not a given.

And with that in mind, I think the 8-5 season was more frustrating for the team than disappointing. They felt they were certainly going out there and playing well enough — on defense, at least — to earn their victories week in and week out (apart from the Oregon and ASU games). But game after game, seemingly one momentary lapse in execution would do the team in and turn what arguably should have been wins in their minds into losses.

Remember that Stanford actually did score the go-ahead touchdown late against USC but had it called back on a boneheaded chop block by running back Remound Wright. Remember that Stanford had Notre Dame on the ropes before cornerback Wayne Lyons pretty much forgot to cover his man on fourth-and-11.

Don’t let the record fool you — the 2014 Stanford team was worse than its predecessors, but not by much. Three games came down to one play that didn’t go Stanford’s way. If they had, we’re looking at 11-2 and probably a top-10 ranking to end the year. Isn’t football fickle?

The bottom line is that every week, the players were frustrated because they knew that they were capable of playing so much better. Nothing really changed for the Cardinal when they tore Cal, UCLA and Maryland apart to end the season — it’s that they stopped making mistakes and finally started playing to their potential.

Call it a rebuilding season, a downturn or whatever you will, but people around the Stanford program know that their record in 2014 wasn’t indicative of how good this program was (and still is), and I’m willing to bet that they’re poised to use the frustration of last year as fuel for their fire in 2015. These guys are used to playing with a huge chip on their shoulders, and that goes double for this season.

 

Kevin Hogan is entering his final season on The Farm. Irish fans have seen Hogan plenty, and are well aware that they were one of the quarterback’s favorite schools, but didn’t offer before Hogan committed to Stanford. Last year was an up and down season for Hogan, though he finished on a high note. How confident are Cardinal fans that Hogan is the type of quarterback who can do more than just steer the ship? The Irish had Tommy Rees, a “game manager” quarterback by most Irish fans’ appraisals. Is Hogan more than that?

Even through two Pac-12 titles and two Rose Bowl appearances, Cardinal fans have never had full confidence in Kevin Hogan. By now, they’ve resigned themselves to the fact that no, Kevin Hogan will never be more than a “game manager” in their minds. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Sure, it’s incredible when a program gets a quarterback like Andrew Luck that can truly carry a program and raise the bar, but Stanford doesn’t need life-changing play at the quarterback position to be an elite team — it just needs an efficient, mistake-free player that can effectively distribute the ball. And that’s exactly what Hogan can do when he’s at his best.

It was, as you described, an up-and-down season for Hogan last year, but he was dealing with quite a bit of adversity both on and off the field in having to play behind an offensive line breaking in four starters while also dealing with the illness and eventual passing of his father during the season.

Despite that, the accuracy problems that have plagued him in the past have seemingly gotten better, and when his offensive line is getting push for his running backs to balance out the offense, Hogan can be brutally efficient in dishing the ball on a dime to his playmakers out wide. Such was the case when he was 15-of-20 for 214 yards at Cal and 16-of-19 for 234 yards at UCLA.

His biggest problem over the last few seasons was that he wouldn’t go through his progressions and lock on to his biggest weapon, Ty Montgomery, and try to force him the ball, often into heavy coverage. But with two-plus years of starting experience under his belt and a deep, talented receiving corps around him, I’m expecting his mistakes and lapses to be few and far between this year. And that’ll be enough.

 

Perhaps the biggest change inside the Cardinal program is the defense. Even if Lance Anderson managed to keep the train rolling after replacing Derek Mason, Stanford needs to replace NINE STARTERS from a veteran defense. How exactly will they do that? Or are you expecting a major step backwards?

The defensive situation may appear pretty dire at first glance, but I’m quite surprised that people haven’t given Stanford’s defense at least the benefit of the doubt after it finished as a top-5 unit in the country in each of the last three seasons.

It’s not like Stanford hasn’t had to rebuild on defense before. At the end of 2013, the Cardinal lost DE Josh Mauro, LB Trent Murphy, LB Shayne Skov, DE Ben Gardner and SS Ed Reynolds, who were most of the entire defensive core of that 2013 team. (Four of the above are now NFL players.) The Cardinal didn’t even skip a beat.

It’s not like Stanford hasn’t been recruiting well on defense — the Cardinal are plugging holes with four-star and five-star recruits all over their two-deep.

And finally, it’s not like Stanford is going to be playing fresh faces — because of Stanford’s robust defensive rotation, only two of the projected starters on defense haven’t seen significant game action before.

Lance Anderson (DC), Duane Akina (secondary) and Randy Hart (D-line) are some of the absolute best coaches in the business and have proven track records. I’m sure the defense will have its growing pains at the start, but I don’t think it will regress by much.

 

Back to the offensive side of the ball. Stanford built their offense around a strong offensive line and a solid running game. But they couldn’t seem to find a go-to running back after having great luck riding guys like Stepfan Taylor and Tyler Gaffney. Who do you expect to take charge of the position group in 2015 and will the offensive line simply reload after losing Andrus Peat?

Shaw has made no secret of the fact that rising sophomore Christian McCaffrey will be the feature piece of the Stanford offense in 2015. Stanford fans were sorely disappointed that they didn’t get to see more of him last year, and for good reason too: McCaffrey is, without question, the most electric playmaker on this team and the future leader of this offense.

Last year, he averaged a remarkable 7.1 yards per carry and 14.8 yards per reception, and regardless of where he’s playing — running back, slot receiver, wildcat back, kick/punt returner — he has the speed and change-of-direction ability to be a game-changer. On top of that, he’s added a lot of muscle this offseason, which adds a more downhill, power dimension to his game as well.

McCaffrey isn’t going to be a traditional Stanford power back in the mold of Taylor or Gaffney, and I’m expecting Shaw to expand the playbook in a way he never has before at Stanford to exploit McCaffrey’s considerable skill set. I’d still expect Remound Wright, who was great to close 2014, in short-yardage and goal-line situations, though. Unfortunately, it looks like Barry Sanders will be the odd man out. I really wish that he’d panned out.

The offensive line shouldn’t take a huge step back with the loss of Peat, as former five-star recruit Kyle Murphy, who started every game at right tackle last year, will switch over to Hogan’s blind side and highly-touted sophomore Casey Tucker should fill in just fine at right tackle. This line struggled for most of last year but came together in a big way down the stretch — if it can retain that late-season form, McCaffrey and Hogan should have a big year.

 

It just isn’t realistic to think that the Stanford defense will fall off a cliff. So who do you expect to step forward on that side of the ball for the Cardinal? Can you walk us through the defenders you expect to emerge as big-time players in 2015?

The defensive line will determine whether or not Stanford’s defense will remain elite in 2015.

Solomon Thomas, the five-star crown jewel of Stanford’s 2014 recruiting class, was reportedly borderline unblockable in the spring, and alongside classmate Harrison Phillips, who put on 20 pounds this offseason, the defensive ends have tremendous upside but are still unproven. The ridiculous combination of Thomas’ size, agility and drive have the potential to make him one of the breakout defensive stars in not just the Pac-12, but the nation this year.

As the ESPN Pac-12 Blog said earlier this summer, though, the true make-or-break position on this line will be at nose tackle. There are currently zero nose tackles on Stanford’s roster, and the Cardinal will likely turn to senior DE Aziz Shittu to fill in at arguably the most important position in Stanford’s 3-4 defense. I don’t know if I necessarily expect Shittu to emerge as a star or not, but if Stanford’s defense is going to be successful, he’s going to need to have a big year.

Behind the line, expect linebacker Blake Martinez, last year’s leading tackler, to again be an underrated yet dominant run-stuffing force on the inside. And in Stanford’s revamped secondary, Kodi Whitfield, who transitioned from wide receiver to free safety, is poised for a huge year. He’s impressed just about everyone with how quickly he picked up the position, and as a converted offensive player, he’s going to have a leg up at locking on to opposing schemes and looks.

Don’t forget the last guy that switched from WR to DB at Stanford. You might have heard of him.

 

David Shaw is widely respected at the college level. His record since taking over for Jim Harbaugh speaks for itself. Yet last season, we finally heard some grumbling about Shaw’s performance—though mostly from Cardinal fans likely spoiled from these past few seasons.

That said, the Cardinal lost some games they maybe shouldn’t have (USC for one). Are some of the question marks (red zone playcalling, for one) just the product of a five-loss season, or has Shaw’s star lost a bit of its shine in recent years?

I’m surprised it took you so long to hear the Shaw discontent — Stanford fans have been grumbling about Shaw and his “overly conservative” playcalling since at least 2012. And, as you know, that came to a head last year when Shaw was the fans’ scapegoat for Stanford’s hilariously awful red-zone efficiency.

When you take a closer look at it, though, I don’t think Shaw’s play-calling has been the problem; his stubbornness is what has been holding him back a bit.

Shaw has always loved his run-first, methodical style in the red zone, and in Stanford’s run of dominance from 2012-14, he had the personnel to pull that off: The offensive line was stout and the running backs could find the holes and protect the ball well.

In 2015, Shaw tried to do the same with personnel that just couldn’t handle it. You can’t really blame Shaw for offensive line penalties, fumbles and missed field goals (all of which were much bigger problems than Shaw’s play-calling), but you could potentially blame him for not adjusting and continuing to put his players in those same positions to make the same mistakes over and over again. But even that might be a stretch.

The reality is that hindsight is always 20/20, and whenever something goes wrong, Stanford fans love to second-guess and point fingers — often at Shaw. They bashed him for throwing too much in the 2013 loss to Utah (despite the Utes’ strong run defense). And again for running too much in the Rose Bowl loss to Michigan State (despite Sparty’s ridiculous secondary). And again for punting twice from USC territory in the 2014 loss (even though our extremely unreliable kicker would have been kicking into a strong wind). If something goes wrong, whatever Shaw did, somebody will find a way to complain about it. He really can’t win in that situation.

With that in mind, I don’t think Shaw deserves all of the discontent that Stanford fans direct towards him. Also keep in mind that he runs a clean program and recruits extremely well given Stanford’s constraints. And as a Stanford graduate himself, he absolutely loves his job. I don’t really know what more you can ask for.

 

Notre Dame and Stanford are becoming quite a rivalry, and once again a regular-season finale could very well have postseason ramifications. The Irish have playoff hopes as they prepare to enter fall camp. What needs to happen for the Cardinal to be in the mix for a Pac-12 title and a spot in the CFB Playoff when Notre Dame comes to Palo Alto over Thanksgiving weekend?

Given the recent past, it’s really weird to think that the defense worries me much more than the offense does.

In general, Stanford’s key is to win the trenches. If the O-line reverts to early 2013 form, Hogan can’t be his efficient self. If the D-line doesn’t stuff the run and force pocket pressure, then the high-flying quarterbacks of the Pac-12 will decimate Stanford’s talented yet inexperienced secondary. Stanford’s offense is talented, but Hogan just doesn’t have the firepower to keep up in a shootout.

If the lines hold, though, the sky’s the limit for this Stanford team, and if it can win on the road at USC in Week 3, the secondary has time to develop further before Stanford’s other tough matchups (Arizona, Oregon, UCLA, Cal, Notre Dame — all at home). That USC game is key. If Stanford wins that, then I’ll be convinced that the defense is for real, and Oregon is the only obstacle between Stanford and a Pac-12 North title — and a legitimate shot at the playoff.

Following spring practice, will Notre Dame continue habitual progress?

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By no means is Irish coach Brian Kelly going to measure Alizé Mack’s progress by if the junior tight end makes his bed every morning. Mack’s mother might—mine would certainly factor it in—but when Kelly cited the need to start the day with hospital corners, he was simply trying to make a point.

“He’s taking care of business off the field, which invariably it always comes back to this,” Kelly said Wednesday. “If you’re taking care of work in the classroom and you’re starting the day right, making your bed—I’m just using that analogy—if you start the day right, it’s going to trend the right way and it’s trending the right way on the field for him.”

Mack is the most obvious example of a needed change in habits. When you miss a season due to academic issues, reconfiguring your priorities becomes a topic of conversation. His instance, though, serves as a readily-cited example of a more widespread concern. Of all the optimistic conversation and concerted change following last season’s 4-8 disappointment, Kelly’s preaching of good habits simultaneously appears as the most abstract aspect and the easiest understood.

“It starts with guys being aware of it first,” Kelly said following Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game on Saturday. “Then once they are aware that they need to have these good habits to be good football players, then you start to see it show itself in good run support angles. You see it offensively, guys always lined up properly. We had very few penalties today, and that’s a product of some of the habits that are being built on a day-to-day basis.”

It makes sense. If a receiver doesn’t realize he lined up a few feet closer to the sideline than desired, for example, then he will make that same mistake the next time, especially if he still makes a catch on the play. Next time, the defensive back may be more able to capitalize on the gift of less route uncertainty.

It is unrealistic to expect anyone, let alone a 19- or 20-year-old, to display this exacting discipline on the football field without practicing it throughout the rest of the day. Successfully cutting corners in one area of life convinces the psyche it can be done anywhere. Thus, Kelly has needed to harp on his charges about their off-field activities, including—but perhaps not seriously—making their beds.

“I think we ask our guys to do a number of different things on a day-to-day basis,” Kelly said. “First of all, understanding how habits carry over to what they do in the classroom and what they do on the football field.”

Kelly and his coaching staff have had four months to make this impression. The issue is, bad habits are hard to break. They’re usually more fun, anyway. As Kelly pointed out, the rewards of good habits are slow in coming. Delayed gratification, if you will.

“I think our guys understand that it takes time to build those habits, because some of them have bad habits, and to get rid of those bad habits, you really have to be creating good habits over a long period of time,” Kelly said. “That’s the process that is hard for these guys, because it takes time, and they want it to happen right away.

“Sometimes they forget and they just want to go out and play. If you go out and play, but you don’t do it the right way, it’s going to get you beat.”

This all sounds well and good, and some of the effects were evident Saturday. There were few penalties (none, in fact, according to the official statistics), the quarterbacks took advantage of the receiving corps’ size and missed their targets high. But soon comes the toughest time to continue this trend.

Kelly and his staff have worked on the Irish to internalize these lessons. Now, Kelly and his staff will cover the country in recruiting. In a few weeks, the players will scatter home for a break before returning for a summer session spent in the weight room and classroom. If they slip back into old habits, the last four months were spent fruitlessly.

Mack played well Saturday. The question has never been does he have physical talent. He undeniably does.

The question has been, is and will be: Did you make your bed today, Alizé?

What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

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Time spent on a traditional game wrap of a spring intrasquad exhibition seems misspent. Gold won Notre Dame’s annual Blue-Gold Game 27-14 led by rising sophomore quarterback Ian Book. The first-string defense (Gold) held the first-string offense to an average of 5.4 yards per play. For context’s sake: Last season Notre Dame gained an average of 6.1 yards per play and held opponents to 5.4.

With that abbreviated recap out of the way, what did Saturday’s pseudo-game environment show about the Irish? If the 20,147 in attendance paid attention, they had the chance to learn a few things:

Daelin Hayes will be ready to hit a quarterback in September
Notre Dame’s quarterbacks were off limits all spring. Bulls might charge when they see red, but the Irish defensive line has had to remember to ease up when they come across a quarterback’s red jersey. If sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes had forgotten that Saturday, Notre Dame might not have any quarterbacks left to play in the fall.

“At the end of the day, we’re on the same team,” Hayes said, dismissing any bitterness about the quarterbacks’ protections. “We have to keep our guys healthy. I wasn’t frustrated, but come September 2, you know.”

Officially, Hayes was credited with three sacks and another tackle for loss among his seven tackles. Admittedly, gauging sacks is tricky when the quarterback does not actually go to the ground. How many of Hayes’ three sacks and the defense’s 11 total would have been evaded if the defender needed to do more than touch the passer? That answer is highly subjective, but discounting Hayes’ numbers would miss the bigger picture.

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

Senior end Jay Hayes (no relation) notched two sacks and sophomore end Ade Ogundeji came the closest to tackling a red jersey when he stripped junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush from behind. The defensive line has been expected to be a weak point for the Irish moving forward, but the spring performance indicates it has a chance at holding its own. These accomplishments bear further merit considering Notre Dame’s offensive line is widely-considered one of its few spots of expected quality.

RELATED READING: Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

“I think it’s pretty clear Daelin Hayes is going to be around the football and be a disruptive player for us,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “I’d have to watch the film, but it seemed like [sophomore end] Julian Okwara was a hard guy to block coming off the edge, as well.”

Ian Book provides some peace of mind
Book was not spectacular, but he was also far from incompetent or intimidated. In his first action on the field at Notre Dame Stadium, Book completed 18-of-25 passes for 271 yards and a touchdown, highlighted by a 58-yard connection with sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson. Meanwhile, junior Brandon Wimbush completed 22-of-32 passes for 303 yards.

Bluntly, one has not needed to follow Notre Dame for very long to fit that “long enough” qualification. Last season’s backup, Malik Zaire, saw competitive action against both Texas and Stanford. In 2015, DeShone Kizer came off the bench to start 11 games after Zaire suffered a season-ending ankle injury. (more…)

What Notre Dame players should you actually watch? Plus, catch up on reading

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If technology does its part, this will post as its typist meanders toward finding his credential for the Blue-Gold Game to conclude Notre Dame’s spring practice. If technology doesn’t do its part, well, then this will be lost to the cobwebs of the internet. Such as it goes.

This space has spent much of the past week discussing what to look for in the 12:30 p.m. ET exhibition. Worry about the big picture, not the individuals. Fret about the macro, not the micro.

RELATED READING: Focus on Notre Dame’s dueling new schemes, not the indivdual players
Blue-Gold Game primer with help from Notre Dame’s coordinators
Four defensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game
Four offensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game

But, if insistent on focusing on singular players, look to the inexperienced, the names you are unfamiliar with. The 15th and final practice of spring may be no more than a practice in reality, but it is in front of nearly 30,000 fans in Notre Dame Stadium. Some players do not have so much as that minimal experience.

“The Blue-Gold Game, specifically, is a time for us to emulate a game-like situation,” senior safety/linebacker/rover Drue Tranquill said. “Especially for guys like freshmen, second-semester guys coming in, it’s a great opportunity for them to get that game feeling, but also continue to take steps in the process to get better.”

The question on the tip of your tongue is a fair one. If you are unfamiliar with the names, how are you supposed to focus on those players? How are you to know who fits the appropriate tunnel vision version of perspective?

Let’s turn to Irish coach Brian Kelly’s mentions from Wednesday–primarily, sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara, sophomore long snapper John Shannon, senior kicker Sam Kohler, sophomore defensive end Khalid Kareem and sophomore safety Jalen Elliott.

Obviously, that is just a sampling. Less obviously, this post’s purpose may or may not be to link to previous reading material and remind you of the vague but pertinent purposes to today’s endeavor. It is neither be-all nor end-all. It is simply another opportunity to gauge what may come down the line.

But hey, how about a prediction? Per Kelly, the first-team offense and second-team defense will be in blue, against the first-team defense and second-team offense in white.

PREDICTION: Blue 37, White 21

HOW TO WATCH
As a recurring reminder, the Blue-Gold Game kicks off at 12:30 p.m. ET on Saturday and will be broadcast on NBC Sports Network, as well as streamed online at ndstream.nbcsports.com and on the NBC Sports app.

Friday at 4: Four offensive positions to watch in Notre Dame’s spring game

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There are two common ways of looking at the annual spring game.
It is the last action involving Notre Dame football readily available for public consumption until Sept. 2, 133 days away.
Or it is an exercise rife with contradiction exacerbated by hype, yielding little-to-no reliable intelligence.
Like much of life, the most accurate assessment falls somewhere between those two views.

If junior running back Dexter Williams breaks off two 50-yard-plus touchdown runs, does that mean he will have multiple big plays in 2017? Not at all. It does mean he will likely have more opportunities for them, though. Just like in spring’s previous 14 practices, the Irish coaches will take what they see and apply it moving forward.

The past—and as of Saturday evening, the Blue-Gold Game will qualify as the past—does not dictate the future, but it can influence one’s approach to it.

Aside from Williams (see the second item below for more on him and the running backs), what other players/positions could influence their future roles the most with their performance to close spring?

BIG PASSING TARGETS: Alizé Jones and Co.
In this instance, big is meant literally. Notre Dame has an embarrassment of riches of tall, long, physical tight ends and receivers. Junior Alizé Jones earns specific mention here due to his inaction last season. Irish fans and coaches alike have a better idea of sophomore receiver Chase Claypool and junior receiver Miles Boykin. They have 2016 film to look at.

Jones, however, sat out the season due to academic issues. His on-field performance largely remains a question mark, but if he combines this spring’s praise with his 6-foot-4 ½ frame holding 245 listed pounds, that could turn into an exclamation point.

“He’s a perfect fit,” new Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long said Friday. “That’s why I recruited him like crazy when I was at Arizona State. He’s a prototypical [tight end], a guy who can run, who can catch.

“The biggest thing about Alizé is he’s taking great pride in his blocking ability right now, his presence of being an end-line guy, his protection and his overall physicality. When you think like that, you’re going to become a better receiver.” (more…)